I don’t remember what we’re talking about when my classmate says it, but I remember his words exactly: “I love your family, they’re so sweet.” But? I can hear the contradiction coming.
The noise of 50 rambunctious elementary schoolers fills my eardrums, but I’m not overwhelmed by the noise. I’m a fifth grader, and my friends and I rule the bus from our thrones in the back. After a long day at school, we relax on the ride across bumpy back roads, and our conversation drifts lazily.
But then he finishes his sentence, and no longer am I the big fifth-grader in control.
“Your family is so sweet; it’s just… it’s too bad that you’re all going to Hell.”
Religion — Christianity, to be specific — has always been a part of my life. I grew up in a village called Peach Bottom, in the tiniest corner of the deepest part of Pennsylvania’s Amish Country. In Peach Bottom, red lights don’t hold up traffic, but horses and buggies do. The land surrounding my house mostly contained cows, and the few human neighbors that I had were almost all Amish, Mennonite, or, at the very least, extremely Christian.
I learned to write my name in a church basement. There were only two preschools in my town, and both were run by Methodist churches. Three days a week I would go to Wee Friends Nursery school to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and “Away In a Manger.” I played the innkeeper during the Christmas play –– to my chagrin, I was too tall to play the coveted role of Mary.
In third grade, my predominantly Protestant class spent a unit learning about the local Amish community. As children, we were used to interacting with the Amish at the grocery store or library, though the Amish kids attended their own one-room schoolhouses.
“What are some similarities between us and the Amish?” our teacher asked.
“We both go to church!” piped up one of my classmates.
“Well, how many of you go to church on Sundays?” the teacher asked in response.
All hands shot up in the air, except one. One timid student, shrinking in the back. Yeah, that was me.
Though Christianity came at me everywhere I went in town, religion was starkly absent when I retreated to the comfort of my log-cabin home. My mother grew up switching between various Protestant churches, and my father endured the strict rules of Catholic school as a child. By the time they reached adulthood, they had both decided religion was not for them.
I grew up believing in magic, fairies, and Santa Claus –– but no God.
Everyone has that “thing” that makes them stick out. As an atheist, mixed-race, nerdy 10-year-old living in “Pennsyltucky,” I had more than a few “things,” but growing up in Amish Country, it was my lack of religion that most obviously separated me from my peers.
I started becoming aware of my non-Christian upbringing in elementary school. It never bothered me that all my classmates were religious, but I began to feel like people cared that I was not. My friends would ask what church I went to, and I wouldn’t have an answer. At lunch one day, I watched two classmates high-five and recite the Ten Commandments on loop, like some odd remix of Miss Mary Mack. I had never heard of the Ten Commandments. I sat quietly and ate my PB&J.
With the start of middle school came a whole new set of preteen struggles. I’m not talking about party FOMO or pressure to watch R-rated movies — the only R-rated movie my friends wanted to watch was “The Passion of the Christ.” What I really felt excluded from was youth group.
I first realized that I was blissfully ignorant of a whole social scene during a sixth grade activities fair. One of the talks was called “WyldLife.” I liked the outdoors, I reasoned, so I decided to attend. I discovered that WyldLife was not simply a hiking trip, but in fact a program to help young people “model and express God's love” and elicit a “God-given desire for a life of fun, adventure and purpose.”
I felt like I was missing out on a huge part of middle school life because I was so detached from Christianity. So, one Friday night, I followed my friend through the looming doors of her megachurch.
I was one tiny body in a vast room of middle schoolers. I looked around. Across from me I saw what looked like a giant stage. Huge projector lights gleamed in my face. Churches I had visited as a kid typically defined themselves by their humility and modesty; this place looked like it was ready to host a rock concert. “This might actually be fun,” I thought to myself, surprised.
The lights dimmed, silence spread through the pews, and all eyes focused on a man crossing to the center of the stage. He was a nondescript white guy, probably in his late twenties. He announced the theme of that night: dating.
The giant projector suddenly lit up, and an eHarmony video depicting a woman tearfully expressing her obsessive love for cats began to play. I did not then—and do not now—have any explanation for this; I just know that it happened.
Once the video ended and the confused laughter had died down, the man segued less-than-gracefully to the topic at hand.
“Last year I dated a girl who wasn’t Christian. It didn’t end well.”
His speech continued from there. When it ended, we broke into smaller groups based on gender. I had never dated, but the eighth-grade girls in my group had. We discussed the concept of potential romance with our youth group leader and came to the collective conclusion that it is much easier, and generally preferable, to date someone who shares our religious beliefs.
I nodded along, but my agreement felt hollow. I had never distanced myself from these girls for having a different belief system than me; it didn’t feel fair for them to be separating themselves so completely from people who held other beliefs.
That night, the friend I had followed to church and I had a sleepover. We lay in the dark, processing what we’d heard in the meeting. After a silence, I piped up.
“What would you do if you really loved someone who was Jewish?”
“How about … Catholic?”
It was a tough question for her. She didn’t have anything to say.
I thought about how I felt when I was told my family was going to Hell, when I was chastised for letting slip the phrase “oh my God,” when I was told that non-Christians were not worth dating. I knew how I would answer the question.
I didn’t believe there was a higher being, but really, who was I to say? Why would I distance myself from other people for believing in one?
For the first time, lying on the floor of my friend’s basement, I felt okay about my religious identity because I realized I didn’t care about anyone else’s. I decided this thing that had troubled me my entire life, that made me feel left out and less than, could actually be an asset.
So, I walked into school the day after that sleepover and stopped pretending. My math teacher told me that day that I was “blessed in the brains” (I can’t say why –– math is not my strong suit). This was the first time a religiously infused remark had failed to make me uncomfortable, and I replied with a simple, “Thank you.” I was flattered by the compliment—but yet I was quietly confident that it was not God that had helped me improve my math skills, but rather my own hard work.
This past Easter, I visited my family friends in a small Connecticut town. To my dismay, I realized I was going to have to attend church before I could run around collecting candy-filled eggs (yes, I am still a competitive Easter egg hunter at the age of 18).
When we got to the building, I walked reluctantly into a room dappled by stained glass. I heard kind words coming from the pastor’s mouth and listened to the ring of the bell choir, and I raised my voice to sing with the congregation. I didn’t believe the words I chanted, but the service was lovely.
What once would have been an uncomfortable situation for me had simply become a fascinating one. Accepting myself as an outsider in this place, I had the confidence to recognize its beauty.
—Magazine writer Maya H. McDougall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.